September 17, 2009

Wolf at the door

It was revealed recently that way back in April, a Russian warship arrested 12 Pakistani nationals who were, along with their Somali comrades, attempting to attack a tanker off the African coast. On the 28th of April this year, the warship Admiral Panteleyev had received a distress call 120 km east of the Somali coast from the Antigua registered tanker Bulwai Bank under attack by pirates. The Russians sent in commandos who foiled the attempt and tracked a mother ship that was giving directions to the criminals. When they arrested this vessel, they found that it was an Iranian trawler whose six man crew had been taken hostage earlier. The trawler was now in command of Pakistani national Mohammed Zamal, who threw his satellite phone overboard when the commandos stormed the mother ship.

Among those arrested were 12 Pakistanis and 11 Somalis. A large cache of arms was also recovered, including Kalashnikovs and handguns. The Russians later said that the Pak nationals, identified so by identity cards they were carrying, were well trained in military and naval tactics. This evidence was handed over the Pakistanis on May 8; the authorities in Pakistan said initially that these good folk were fishermen. In any event and as is quite usual for that country, there is no progress on the Pak investigation so far after more than four months.

Surprised? You should not be, because Indian naval analysts have reportedly pointed out the fact, starting as far back as nine months ago, that many weapons found amongst Somali pirates have Pakistani ordinance markings. Rocket propelled grenade launchers, rifles, even magazines seized during a raid on a pirate vessel were found to be of Pak origin.

A few, me included, have been crying ourselves hoarse about the links between terrorism and piracy for a long time now (see earlier column in this magazine, Dire Straits). I find it dismaying but not too surprising that the increasing body of evidence confirming this nexus is ignored by most in the industry, and, indeed, in the Government and by the international community. The US is preoccupied in Afghanistan, probably has nightmares about its earlier involvement in Somalia and perhaps does not have the stomach for a continued sustained war on terror any longer. In India, we have become accustomed to waiting for Uncle Sam to do the honours. We remain a soft industry and India remains a soft state even after Mumbai. (Our new defensive strategy? Put on more lard.)

I am convinced that we in India would do well to pay some attention to the strong signs that the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal continue to be our Achilles heel and a weakness that hamstrings Indian maritime security. The attacks on Mumbai have been largely digested by a populace that seems inured to government mediocrity, ineffective policing and helplessness. Appalling as those attacks were, there may be worse to come. While India Inc. continues to be riveted by stories of alleged revivals in the economy and the direction of the stock market, and while the shipping community worries about overcapacity and the possible collapse in Chinese demand, major existential threats to maritime security are being systematically ignored by all of us. Unless reversed, we will pay for this wooly headedness, and we will pay for it in blood.

In connected developments: the drama of the North Korean ship Mu San detained by India is not yet complete. However, Chinese proxy or not, cash strapped Pyongyang seems determined to push the sale of military and nuclear technology to regimes which are often hostile to India. Other countries are starting to take action against the long standing rogue state: last week the UAE seized containers from the ANL Australia bound for Iran from North Korea on suspicion that they contained arms bound for Iran. The Australian government confirmed later that weapons including rocket propelled grenades were found in the containers, an obvious cocking a snook at the UN imposed sanctions on North Korea on June 12.

Far away, in Russia, the 'Arctic Sea' story includes strong rumours that the Israelis mounted the operation to hijack the ship as it was carrying arms to Iran. A Russian journalist reporting that story has fled Russia fearing for his life.

As worrying as the arms sales themselves is the fact that the players in this game, China, Pakistan and North Korea, have had an existing nexus for decades: the Pakistani nuclear programme and missile systems included. None other than the infamous Pakistani nuclear scientist Khan confirmed this link to a newspaper this week. And this nexus has always been hostile to India; in fact, that hostility is one of the prime reasons for the genesis of this cabal.

Amongst threats from outside our borders, Pakistan’s strategy of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ does not need reminding. The similar Chinese ‘string of pearls’ strategy involves surrounding India with elements hostile to it. "Investments" in naval bases and commercial ports and listening posts in Bangladesh, Burma, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are all threats to Indian security. Civil wars in Sri Lanka and Nepal have increased Chinese and Pakistani influence in the region manifold. And of course, you have historical ‘the enemy of an enemy is my friend’ alliances between many elements in our neighbourhood, including rogue States and sponsors of terror. China, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran and Myanmar have been strongly interconnected for the past few decades; and, except in the case of Iran, much to our cost. The nuclear proliferation trail, too, flows right through these countries and beyond, but that is just one thread of the nexus. China is already testing our resolve; witness the increased incursions in the North East, last week’s provocation in Ladakh when Chinese soldiers crossed the Indo Chinese border, threatened some shepherds, and spray painted, in red paint and in Cantonese, ‘China’ on boulders well inside our country. Witness, too, its aggressive stand on Arunachal Pradesh.

Recent tales about the use of idyllic and Muslim dominated islands in the Indian Ocean as a launching ground for terrorists bound for India via Sri Lanka have added another dimension to this threat. Make no mistake, we are being encircled. Somalia is just another spoke in the wheel.

To a layman, the Indian response seems pathetic. Except for a George Fernandes declaring once in a while that ‘China is the biggest threat’, or the Indian government flim flamming on Pakistani terrorism with sickening regularity, we don’t seem to do much else. Sure, armed forces' presence in some North Eastern states has been raised after increased Chinese incursions, but we are outgunned when it comes to the Chinese. Besides, China has built massive infrastructure on its side of the border which will allow it to move in troops quickly: we have done nothing.

We in the shipping industry need to be particularly worried at the confirmation of Somali/Pakistani links. Our crews will be at greater risk and our ships and cargoes will become preferred targets. The consequences for Indian maritime trade and shipping will be huge if the usual State players from Pakistan gang up with Somali pirates and terrorists. It will be, then, a simple matter to target Indian shipping and trade interests around Yemen and Somalia, and, later, even beyond to Kenya and the North African coast. Equally importantly, Pakistan will then have opened another hostile border with India by proxy. It will use Somalia the way it uses Bangladesh and Nepal, as a staging ground for terrorist and criminal attacks in India. It will be able to make this exercise plausibly deniable to a world that has always had its eyes wide shut when it comes to Pakistan, 'the epicentre of terrorism in the world'.

China, in the meanwhile, is not so quietly expanding its zone of influence in the Indian Ocean. To me, chances are good that the Mu San affair, like that of other North Korean arms ships, has tacit Chinese approval. After all, the Peking/Pyongyang/Islamabad/Tehran nuclear proliferation connection is decades old.

It is about time that India started treating its own maritime security seriously. It is time to call a spade a spade, link terrorism to Somali policy officially and take strong action. The Indian Government must surface these threats to the electorate; that is part of its job. It must strengthen the armed forces and coastal security; post Mumbai actions are inadequate, poorly executed and are taking far too long. It must act swiftly and with clarity in our country’s interests: right now the Indian Government just lists these threats periodically and retires to contemplate its navel, expressing concern when it finds some lint there.

It is time that India started flexing some muscle publicly. Expressions of concern mean nothing when the pack of wolves is at your door.